On a beautiful August evening in Fairbanks, 198 Alaskans boarded the riverboat Discovery II and spent 90 minutes paddling up and down the Chena River, all for the cause of John Sturgeon, and his victory at the U.S. Supreme Court.
Sturgeon is the moose hunter who, after 40 years of hunting along the Nation River, was stopped by National Park Service rangers and told to remove his hovercraft from the waterway. He was not even allowed to turn around and head back to his truck — he had to bring in a skiff to remove the small hovercraft, pictured below.
Sturgeon knew the rangers were wrong to not allow Alaskans on a navigable river, so he took the Park Service to court.
Over the course of 12 years his case went through the court system grinder. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals was especially rough, John Binkley explained to the party aboard the Discovery II, but the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with Sturgeon that Alaskans have rights to use the waterways even if they are in national preserves such as the Yukon Charley National Preserve. Those waterways. are exempt from the National Park Service’s regulatory authority, due to provisions in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.
The win was historic, but 12 years of legal bills were overwhelming. Ed and Cathy Rasmussen of Anchorage heard about the case and contacted Sturgeon, saying they would cover half of the legal bills.
“The bills kept coming and coming and coming,” Ed Rasmuson told the crowd on board the riverboat. The eventual total was $1.2 million. Many a fundraiser has been held to keep the case alive.
Tuesday’s event was designed to raise $60,000 — two thirds of what remains to be paid to the legal team that fought for Sturgeon. The “Thanks a Million” cruise netted about $75,000, leaving just $15,000 or so unpaid.
It was a great relief to Sturgeon, who thanked the crowd for coming and bidding on the auction items. He wanted everyone to celebrate the victory that was for all Alaskans and their grandchildren and great grandchildren.
“People felt great about the win, you could feel the energy on the boat, and people were realizing we needed to pull this over the finish line,” said Craig Compeau.
Ed Rasmuson said the event reminded him of “Old Alaska from years gone by”, with all the camaraderie, passion, and a sense of enthusiasm for our state.
One of the auction items came from a trapper in Quinhagak, who sent a note saying he had no money to send to help Sturgeon retire his legal debt, but he was sending some fox and marten hides for the auction table.
Among those organizing the event were Jennifer Yuhas, Craig Compeau, Sarah Sackett, Genevieve Schok, John Binkley, Karen Gordon, and the rest of the Laundry House Gang. Others who have been promoting the merits of the case for the past 12 years were also along to celebrate, including Mary and Dick Bishop.
Alaskans from all walks of life — from a poor trapper in rural Alaska to a governor (Michael Dunleavy) to a wealthy retired banker from Anchorage — were doing their best to close the accounts and put the Sturgeon vs. Park Service into the history books. One attendee drove in from Wasilla on his motorcycle, another traveled all the way from Eagle, Alaska, by the Canadian border.
Also attending the evening were Sturgeon’s legal team, including Director of Litigation Anna Seidman from Safari Club International in Washington, D.C., and Washington Post reporter Robert Barnes, who is writing a story on what it costs to take a case to the Supreme Court.
Those unable to attend the “Thanks a Million” riverboat event but who still want to pitch in to retire the last few thousand dollars of legal fees can donate through the Alaska Outdoor Council, where more information is posted about the victory. Checks may be mailed to Alaska Fish & Wildlife Conservation Fund, 310 K Street, Suite 200, Anchorage, Alaska 99501.
Donations also can be made through Outdoor Heritage Foundation.
Follow this link for more about the historic win: